Panathlon’s Essex Secondary Swimming gala at the London Aquatics Centre perfectly demonstrated how we simultaneously engage students of both upper and lower ranges of ability and experience. 

Wednesday’s event at the prestigious London 2012 venue featured eight teams from schools across Essex, including several competitors who are part of the Runnymede Swimability Club. 

The club, based in Benfleet, trains children aged 8+ with a wide range of disabilities and special needs to become competitive swimmers, with many going on to compete internationally. 

Thanks to the accessibility of Panathlon’s gala format, even these trained swimmers were able to compete side-by-side with far less experienced pupils – some of whom were taking part in their first ever gala. 

Chris Pagan (pictured above, centre), who runs Runnymede Swimability Club and is a former national-level disability swimmer himself, visited Wednesday’s event and was hugely impressed by its versatility and impact on pupils.

“My first impression is how the competition is accessible to all ability levels,” said Chris. “It’s an ideal way to introduce swimming to young people who may not otherwise have had the opportunity to do it – and it immediately gives them a flavour for competition, whatever their level of water confidence and experience.

“These events are a great springboard into other things. Swimming brings people with disabilities out of their comfort zone and gives them a focus.”

He added: “It’s a very social environment here. Swimmers get feedback and encouragement from staff and their peers. It puts a smile on everybody’s face, whatever position they finish in. I feel honoured to be here and be part of it.” 

One of the Runnymede club members present at the Aquatics Centre was 18-year-old Henry De Court from Lancaster School in Southend, who finished in second place. 

Lancaster School pupils, including Henry De Court (fourth from left)

Noting his swimming ability, coaches initially put Henry into a mainstream swimming class, but he soon became frustrated about being held back due to his special needs, despite being both bigger and a more able swimmer than the other children. He discovered Runnymede Swimability Club and Panathlon, where he finally found a platform to achieve his potential. 

His mum Sarah said: “Swimming with ‘normal’ kids just didn’t work. He is a very confident swimmer but they didn’t know how to handle him. What Runnymede and Panathlon can offer is a level playing field. There is no judgement here. He was very nervous this morning but he is a very competitive character. Here, he can experience the elation of achieving success and be rightfully proud of himself.” 

Henry himself said: “I went like a bullet! It’s such fun and I just love winning races.” 

Henry’s teacher at Lancaster School, Simon Best, said: “We have weekly lessons but this event brings an extra dimension to their swimming so they can compete and showcase their skills against other pupils with varying needs.” 

Lancaster holds trials at school to select their team for Panathlon competitions. Selection is regarded as an honour, with team members wearing distinctive yellow team shirts.

“There is pride in pulling on that shirt,” explained Mr Best. “Panathlon swimming galas have become a major fixture on our sporting calendar. It’s the best-run event we’ve seen.

“It’s not easy to find this level of competition, which is pitched absolutely perfectly. It’s huge for these guys and they are extremely grateful. 

“These sorts of events allow us to get back to normal after the pandemic. That’s really important because they lost two years of being able to go out and experience the physical, mental and social advantages of days like this.” 

At the other end of the experience and confidence scale from Henry are the likes of Doucecroft School pupil Kai Giles, who was participating in a Panathlon for the first time, having only joined the school in September. 

Kai has auditory and sensory processing disorder, dyslexia, ADHD and autism. He was very anxious before the event, but soon revelled in the experience of swimming at such a huge venue. 

“This is all I’ve heard about for weeks,” said his mum Claire. “This will give him a huge leap in confidence – and bragging rights over his friends from his previous school! 

“Doucecroft has saved him. He was miserable and misunderstood at his previous school and they didn’t meet his needs. Now he gets brought along to events like this and I can’t describe how wonderful it is. He feels part of a community and part of a team and meets kids who are similar to himself. 

“This is a level playing field and that’s so important. He has such a disadvantage and is never going to win in a mainstream environment, but here is a wonderful chance for him to feel proud of himself. Every child should have that opportunity.” 

The notion of a level playing field was also important for Bernard Asante, a new teacher at Treetops School who was experiencing Panathlon for the first time.

“It’s a platform which gives everyone a chance, regardless of ability,” he said. “When that’s not the case, it kills their enthusiasm to come back and try again. But this is brilliant. 

“I asked one of our pupils when was the last time he’d been swimming and he replied, ‘November 24th last year,’ – the last Panathlon event he’d competed in. That shows Panathlon is breaking down barriers and opening up opportunities for kids who simply don’t get them elsewhere.” 

Gold medal winners from Cedar Hall School

The day’s gold medal winners were from Cedar Hall School in Benfleet. “This is our third Panathlon event and every time we get the email we’re so excited,” said Head of Swimming Ian Peterson. 

“The pupils have had a fantastic experience here at the best facility in the country. Everyone is buzzing for them back at school. For many of them, it’s their first gala experience. It’s a massive confidence-booster and is fantastic for their self-esteem.” 

Robbie Stevens, 18, from Endeavour Academy in Brentwood, said: “Today has been really motivational. We have really come together as a team. I really thrive on being competitive so this is like heaven for me!” 

The day’s Young Leaders, who officiated and guided the swimmers in the pool, were provided by Great Baddow School in Chelmsford. 

Young Leaders from Great Baddow High School

Panathlon would like to thank our sponsors Pentland Brands and the Jack Petchey Foundation for making the event possible.